Casting Your Characters

The other day I was walking around A.C. Moore with my friend Aline.  She was shopping for teacher supplies and I was telling her all about the latest idea for a story that had popped into my head.  It’s a story that I won’t have time to write for years at least, but there it was in my head anyhow.

As I narrated the plot as far as it had come to me she paused and laughed and said, “It must be really interesting inside your head.”

“You have no idea,” I replied.  “But hey, I never get bored.”

It’s true.  I always have one story, or more likely half a dozen, zipping around my mind at any given time.  At times various friends like Aline have marveled at how all of those stories appear and how I’m able to nurture them into being.  I mean, I’m a writer, it comes naturally to me.  But not everyone is like that (thank God!).

So it got me thinking….

True, my brain just works in stories.  But I also have a whole bag of tricks when it comes to formulating and sustaining a novel as I write it.  These aren’t writing techniques, storyboards, character diagrams, or anything technical at all.  My writing tools are much more emotional.  You could even call them sensual.  I know there are other writers out there who employ similar goofy methods to stay engaged with the story, but just in case, I think I’ll share some of them with you.

By the way, I employ these techniques as a reader too.  So if you happen to be reading this and you’re not a writer, do not despair!  You might find this interesting too.  This is what the nutty people who write the books you read do.

So let’s start with creating sensual characters.

My writer-hero, J.K. Rowling, was once asked how she felt about the casting of the Harry Potter movies, if she now sees Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson in her mind’s eye when she writes.  Her answer was an emphatic no.  She has her image of what each of her characters look like and it’s nothing like any of the actors who were cast for the films.  With one notable exception.  The casting of Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood was to perfect, in Rowling’s estimation, that she now sees the actress in her mind as the character.

I have a background in theater, so when I create characters I instantly cast real people in the roles.  Nine times out of ten I cast famous actors, but sometimes I cast people I know.  The series I’m currently working on – Historical Romance set in Montana in 1895 – actually has three characters who are based off of people I have known in real life.  One is a friend from childhood, one a good friend from high school, and the third is a man I used to work with (and had a bit of a crush on).

But usually it’s famous people.  Like this guy, for instance.  Yeah, you might recognize him as Ben Linus from Lost.  Believe it or not, he’s the hero in my current work in progress.  Yes, I have strange taste in men.  So what made me decide to cast someone who was creepy and manipulative in Lost as a charming businessman with a tragic past running a general store in a tiny Montana town?  It’s the look in Michael Emerson’s eyes when he plays characters who have so much to hide.  Fits perfectly.

The key to casting characters is to love people.  I think it might also be the vain attempt to try to understand them too.  I’m a sucker for a talented actor, no matter what he looks like.  The same goes for casting heroines.  Yeah, sure, this is Amy Adams.  We all know that.  But when I saw this particular picture I was so taken by the fresh, somewhat naïve optimism it suggested to me that I cast her as the heroine, Ruby, in the novel I was working on in January.  Has Amy Adams ever played any role close to the character of Ruby?  Nope.  But having her inhabit the character in my mind as I wrote the first draft helped me to visualize what she was doing and why.

How about this guy.  Chances are you have no idea who this is.  To me this picture represents the absolute essence of my character Jack from The Loyal Heart and The Faithful Heart.  I printed out this picture and pasted it directly above my computer when I was writing The Faithful Heart.  In my mind’s eye every move Jack made, every word he spoke, had this image attached to it.

Interestingly enough, when I showed this picture to one of my friends who read the books she was surprised.  That wasn’t at all how she had pictured Jack.  Does that matter?  No, not at all.  In fact, I think it’s better that the reader conjure up their own idea of what the characters in the books they’re reading look like.  And I have to admit that nine out of ten romance novels I read have a hero that ends up looking like Richard Armitage in my mind’s eye.

So why bother casting your characters at all?

Because whether you know it or not, writing is a sensual game.  You get the best results when all of your senses are engaged.  I feel like I’m able to describe actions and expressions and even motivations so much better when I have something physical and visual to pin them to.  In the past when I’ve created characters without knowing what they look like they’ve always turned out two-dimensional and lacking.

I should also add that in reality I have a very small pool of actors who light my fire who I use over and over again (no pun intended).  At last count I think I have cast Richard Armitage as the hero in about 8 different novels.  There’s no harm in that.  If I work my stories right you’d never know.

So how about you?  Is it just me who does this or are there other writers out there who cast their characters?

If you’re a writer and you don’t work this way, by the way, I highly recommend giving it a try.


14 thoughts on “Casting Your Characters

  1. Ha! I knew that was Jack! I knew it! I pictured Jack acting like him but looking more like Wash from Firefly (actually, more like that actor looked in Knight’s Tale, being such a ginger). Hehe

    I’m going to have to give this a try in my current novels. It think it’s a fabulous idea!

    • Definitely give it a try and let me know what you think!

      I like that guy from Firefly, and a lot of other things, too, but in my mind Jack has just a little more wicked to him. That’s why I love my character pic of him. 😉

  2. I do the same thing! Though I don’t *think* I’ve had repeats unless they were the same character in a different book. Same thing, my best friend was the inspiration for my main character’s best friend in my first book. (She knows this).
    Love the post 🙂

    • I’ve only written one book with my best friend as a character. I was the main character in that one, incidentally. But I don’t think that story will ever see the light of day. Then again, you never know….

  3. I never used to do this, but then I took a Discovery writing class where we had to come up with a playlist of music and do a collage for our books. I dreaded having to do it, but once I did, it offered me a tactile reminder. I could step away from my WIP to revise other things and the collage and music would bring me right back in. If you want to see some great collages, Jenny Crusie is an artist. Hers are incredible.

  4. Ohhhh! Richard Armitage! He made a guest appearance on my blog (unknowingly), just because me and my friend Teresa fancy him. He would fit so well into my stories as the hero/ villain/ random character, just cos. And you know of my addiction to Rob James-Collier, he could also be one of the characters. Any character.
    I’ve got a whole album on Facebook of who would be who in my Viking novels. I even asked one of the actors if he’d be in it, he said yes. Then realised I was not a famous writer and stopped replying. Never mind hahaha.

  5. I have enough trouble getting my characters to behave the way I want them to when they’re figments of my imagination. I can’t imagine the problems I’d have if I used real people : P

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  8. I really should start doing this. A lot of times when working with a new idea I end up with a mannequin problem. I encounter the same problem reading and in some dreams too. The core of the person is there, but they occasionally end up with a mannequin’s featureless, blurry white space over their features because I just can’t make up my mind what they should look like exactly. In cases of reading, it’s usually because I forgot how they were described and they don’t remind me of anyone specific.

    For example, Aubrey looked more like you, I already told you I thought of the actor from robin hood men in tights who played the sheriff of rottingham in the more serious role of crispin, I’d forgotten what Jack looked like so he ended up looking like my uncle jack (which had to change later in the book when he started being a romantic, but was stubborn, much easier in book 2 where I’m reminded he has ginger hair, so now he’s…faceless XD but someone mentioned the ginger from knight’s tale…yeah, he’s jack for me now, but perhaps more handsomized by the pic you provided). The two nuns didn’t really have a face, nor did the main bad guy. In book 2, however, I ended up casting Amy Adams in the lead role. Don’t take your faceless characters to heart though, it’s definitely me and not their creators. A great deal of the Harry Potter cast was faceless for me until I saw them in the movies. Speaking of which, I’ve seen Rowling mention that her vision of Snape was also forever changed by Alan Rickman. I didn’t realize Luna fit her vision so well, but I remember reading that Snape looked very little like Rickman originally but she just loved the actor entirely too much, particularly in that role that he took over Snape in her mind’s eye for the rest of the books.

    I’m definitely going to give more thought to directly casting each of my characters from now on, maybe it’ll help prevent me from losing my way in novels, or help me to get a handle on some of those main characters in my head whose books remain unwritten because I simply cannot get a handle on who the character is.

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